Book Review

"Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics" by Russ Douthat

Anna Smith
Ross Douthat
Wednesday, January 2nd 2013
Jan/Feb 2013

The sight of heretics running rampant has always distressed the orthodox. Historically they’ve taken some extreme measures to restore their equanimity: wars of religion, the Spanish Inquisition, burnings at stakes, things like that.

In America, so the story goes, with the advent of modernity, democracy, and the First Amendment, it was determined that religion was too hot for the state to handle and that there should be free exercise of religion. This arrangement unleashed new scope for heretical binges unchecked by the power of sword, and heresy flourished like a green tree in its native soil. But this was considered preferable to violent religious carnage, and Americans are proud of their forefathers for having had the sense to make the religious zealots settle their differences without weapons.

This is the story as it’s usually told, with the focus on the glorious benefits of religious freedom. But New York Times columnist Ross Douthat would like to nuance this story in his book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. He believes that while America has always fostered heretics, these heretics used to react against a substantial orthodox Christian core.

The minority heretics were good for religion, because heresy keeps orthodoxy on its toes. And the situation as a whole was good for America, as the thus-enlivened orthodox, gathered in the institutional church, encouraged many social goods in its communal role, driving assimilation, and guaranteeing social peace. It also played a prophetic role, as “a curb against our national excesses and [as] a constant reminder of our national ideals” (16).

But now this ideal heresy/orthodoxy balance is being threatened by the decline of institutional orthodox Christianity and the insurgence of numerous heresies. Rather than becoming too irreligious or too religious, Americans are becoming too heretical, which leads to the loss of the orthodox core and its supporting social role, and instead results in cultural and financial woes. Douthat narrates the decline of orthodoxy over the past fifty years along with the concurrent decline in cultural health, and he provides a handy compendium of the most prevalent modern heresies and the havoc they wreak upon society. From this data he argues that more orthodox belief would be good for America, and that even unbelievers and skeptics should be able to appreciate the benefits America once reaped from its orthodox core.

Douthat writes with keen intelligence when he outlines the current heresies and their pernicious societal effects. If you want to be briefed on the heresies held by many of your friends and neighbors, I can recommend no better resource. Douthat is less sharp, however, when he discusses orthodoxy. He attempts to make an instrumental argument for orthodox Christianity, which is difficult to do without reducing orthodox Christianity to a simple tool. An instrumental version of Christianity, sadly, is by definition no longer orthodox. It’s difficult terrain to navigate. Douthat readily acknowledges that Christianity must be sought for its own sake: “To make any difference in our common life, Christianity must be lived’not as a means to social cohesion or national renewal, but as an end unto itself” (293). But he struggles throughout the book to resist treating orthodoxy as a tool for political flourishing rather than the supernatural, stumbling-block-to-the-Jews and foolishness-to-the-Greeks kind of religion that it is.

The struggle to describe Christianity’s social benefit without reducing it to those benefits is apparent in his definition of orthodoxy. He argues that orthodoxy recognizes that reality is complex, while heretics often try to rationalize and streamline doctrines they can’t explain, like the incarnation, leading to a flattened view of the world. He goes on to define orthodoxy in this way: “What defines this consensus [of orthodox Christian belief], above all’what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta’is a commitment to mystery and paradox” (10). This is an odd way to put it, because while believing in mysteries and paradoxes might help you believe in a more complex world, they have no inherent value in themselves. They are valuable only if they are true and help to explain reality as it actually is. Douthat’s indirectness about Christianity’s truth-claims might make for an instrumental argument that is more appealing to unbelievers, but it portrays orthodoxy in a manner less than accurate. The struggle continues when Douthat addresses the way the church needs to think of itself in relation to the world. For example, he writes,

For a fleeting historical moment [the Civil Rights movement], it seemed as though the Christian churches might not have to choose between becoming religious hermit kingdoms or the spiritual equivalents of Vichy France. Instead, they might become something more like what the Gospels suggested they should be: the salt of the earth, a light to the nations, and a place where even modern man could find a home. (54)

In this quote he confuses being salt and light with the ability to effect certain social change. In order to be salt and light, churches need to preach the Word boldly and administer the sacraments rightly, and Christians need to love their neighbors. Then they will be sufficiently salty and bright regardless of the sociopolitical outcome.

Douthat makes similar missteps elsewhere in the book, but at the very end he offers an encouraging proposal: get thee back to church. He writes, “Anyone who seeks a more perfect union should begin by seeking the perfection of their own soul. Anyone who would save their country should first look to save themselves” (293). That’s still phrased a bit too instrumentally, because of course saving your own soul is no guarantee that your country will be saved, but he does at least get the order right. Far better to save your soul and forfeit the whole world than the reverse. And should the world benefit because your soul is saved, praise the Lord for his bountiful mercies.

Wednesday, January 2nd 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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